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Why Are Students at Military Base Schools Out-Achieving Their Civilian Peers?

Kids educated on military bases regularly outscore kids educated in public schools on national assessment tests. Is the model replicable?

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There is a very public message that bullying is not permitted on school grounds, but that is not my experience. The kids are taught classes in how to basically "buck up" and not take things so personally. I feel like there is a very narrow definition of bullying, and everything else is just "kids play." I am not aware that hate speech is considered bullying (I have heard the words "gay" and "retarded" used pejoratively, even by teachers).

As for parental involvement, Hill-Mann says, a heavy burden is placed on women, along with the assumption that all servicemembers are men. As a parent, she’s pushed to participate in school activities and in many cases to make up for shortcomings at the school:

I feel like a lot of school activities would cease to happen without parent volunteers. Time is considered free for use. All the on-base sports activities…are coached by parent volunteers and not anyone specifically qualified to be leading the sport. Little more than a background check is required before taking these duties on.

Hill-Mann’s experiences with her base school suggest that the progress for which the Department of Defense has been praised may not be the whole picture. If students are performing well but struggling with bullying and large class sizes, how supportive is the learning environment? Hill-Mann’s concerns about group-focused learning also ring alarm bells when it comes to disabled students, who may need accommodations in the classroom. In 2011, the General Accounting Office found that the military may not be adequately serving disabled students, and recommended better screening for such students along with firmer accountability standards. The Air Force, in particular, has been criticized for failing disabled students: some installations have no special needs coordinator, others fail to offer accessible education services at all, and in some cases the educational opportunities available to the disabled are limited – all in direct contravention of the law.

Is the DoDEA a model for civilian education?

Looking at the model of education offered by the Pentagon, one might wonder if it’s possible to transfer the best of what it offers – like an emphasis on parental involvement and community building around the schoolhouse -- to the civilian world. Some might argue that military culture is a key factor, making it difficult to provide the same kind of educational opportunities to civilian students, but there’s more at work here than that. The genuine commitment to students, education and family life in some DoDEA schools seems as important as the culture in which base schools are rooted, and there is no doubt that this emphasis is something civilian “reformers” should be working to embrace.

Evaluating base schools to find out more about what is working and why could provide valuable information for those in the civilian world looking to improve student learning on an organic level –rather than on meeting flawed government metrics. A high-quality, free public education should be available to all students in the US no matter where they are, and if base schools offer any positive lessons in that regard, their achievements ought to be studied more closely.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.